The Heart of Haiku, Jane Hirshfield

After finishing Imagine last week, I decided to follow the line of thought up with this slim volume about the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho, considered to be one of the original developers of haiku. For the last five years, I’ve been keeping my own haiku journal (one entry per day), and although I don’t practice it in its most rigid form, I do consider these tiny poems to be one of my favorite forms of expression, so I was curious to read about Basho’s work in the field.

Unlike Lehrer’s approach however, which I at times struggled with from a scientific perspective, Hirshfield writes a book that’s one (large) part history, one (smaller) part technical breakdown, with a healthy sprinkling of the poet’s own elegant haiku. She tells Basho’s story with an intimate air, as though she personally shadowed his journeys, teachings, and development as a writer across a matter of miles or decades rather than centuries. She stands close to him, allowing the reader to peer with her into the grass hut where he starved and composed some of the first poems of the kind.

I love her perspective of the poet, a man I had never heard of before this book; I loved his story, his examination of the Tao, of Zen Buddhism, his maturation as a writer, and the gentle ridicule he often expressed of his own pride in his work. I have a (now well-known) short attention span when it comes to non-fiction, and this proved to be the perfect length for me to absorb the man and his work. It almost felt as though it was written to reflect the oral tradition, or the short story, and since the short story is one of my favorite formats, her choice worked well for me.

It was also wonderful to read a poet, and especially one who focused on haiku, whose work I enjoyed as much as the story composed around it. I still remember the first day of my Senior Poetry Seminar in college, when we were all asked to speak off the cuff about our favorite poet. I spent a good portion of that class hiding in the bathroom in a panic. I had no favorite poet, no one person who I could quickly point to as being my inspiration. I couldn’t even think of a poet’s name (well, except Shel Silverstein, but I didn’t think he would win me any points with my professor); consequently, whenever I find a poet now that I like, I try to write his or her name down as often as I can so that, if someone were ever to ask again, I would be ready. Basho, Basho, Basho. I am writing his name on my heart because, not only did he have a way of turning three short lines into moving verse, he did so without the pretentiousness I hate.

At one point, when he’s talking about the form of the haiku, he says something to the effect of, “it doesn’t matter if the syllables are precise – what matters is that the words flow smoothly, and that the thought it succinctly expressed.” Now, I’m paraphrasing here (because I forgot to bookmark the exact quote), but I love the point he’s making. He’s not telling his students to completely disregard to the form – it has its uses and in its perfection, great beauty – but it is not everything. The poet has the right to decide when that form has to crumble to make way for meaning.

The other point that resonated with me comes from Hirshfield herself. She says, “To read a haiku is to become its co-author, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the proteus-shapes of your own life.” (loc 83) This is the basis for keeping up with my own haiku journal. I’ve talked before about the book that originally inspired the idea (The Haiku Year), but as the years pass, I can’t imagine my life without it. I especially loved when two of my friends kept their own as well, and I could stretch my own reflection process while simultaneously receiving unexpected insights into their most private thoughts. I would see where our lives bent together, then apart, like branches in a shallow river, and even when I could feel us floating further from each other, I still felt connected through this simple practice.

One of the most profound gifts I’ve ever received came out of this, in fact. The picture below was taken on my birthday about a year and a half after I started keeping my journal; my friend Joe took my first year’s worth of haikus and turned them into this exquisite box of memories.

I remember him saying, when he gave this to me, that over the hours it took to put this together for me, he found so much joy rereading my poems and reliving our first year of friendship.

Haiku is meant to be open to interpretation, to be both a reflection of the writer and of the reader in equal parts. It is technical, but not inescapably so, sophisticated, but not without humor. It is a form that lends itself to memory, but also to outward reflection, to pushing beyond ourselves to consider the wider world. To me, this is the very heart of what Hirshfield and Basho are both trying to say to us as poets, readers, and people.

Jane Hirshfield does not appear to have a website or blog, but more information about her work can be found here.

12 thoughts on “The Heart of Haiku, Jane Hirshfield

    1. The great thing about writing haiku is that it doesn’t even require an hour! I only spend about ten minutes before bed on mine, and even if I don’t get any other writing done all day, I at least get a small burst of satisfaction from that.

  1.   Insomniacs : Don’t weep, count prime sheep to sleep

          One, two, three, five, sev’n,
          Elev’n, thirteen, seventeen,
          Nineteen, Twenty-three, ….

      A polymath, is truly a mathematician

          Goldbach’s Conjecture :
          “Two prime sums span all evens”
          With 1 works better.

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